I got up at 3 a.m., which I now refused to call ‘zero-three-hundred hours.’ I went downstairs and turned on the TV in the kitchen. A Laurel and Hardy movie was on, the one where they had to deliver a piano across a rope bridge in the Alps. Stan says to Ollie, I see a monkey. And Ollie says to Stan, That doesn’t surprise me.
I found a plastic bottle of gin in one of the cabinets, tucked behind the coffee. Drink me in case of emergency. That’s what I’d deciphered from its location. I uncapped it, took a long, burning swig, recapped it, and stuck it back in the cabinet. I made coffee.
While the coffee percolated, I flipped through some old records in the living room. Every tenth one or so, I’d take one out of the jacket and inspect it. All of them were dusty and scratched. The inner sleeves were yellow, some crumbly.
One, two, three, four – your left, your right, your left.
I drank coffee in the kitchen. Sandra came in wearing an extra-extra large t-shirt, which came down to her knees. I saluted her with my mug. The tee-shirt said Union PROUD! She had on a big pair of puffy pink slippers. Good morning, she said groggily. I thought I heard someone down here.
I made coffee, I said. Which was obvious. Perhaps I was angling for a round of applause.
So you did, Sandra said. She went and poured herself a cup and sat down.
We sat silently for a few minutes. Some part of the house was creaking. Another was making a tick-tick-tick noise.
The Bun tells me you’re from Nebraska, Sandra said.
I had stopped mentioning that I was originally from Nebraska to people for a reason. People always wanted to talk specifics, and I could barely remember the place.
It was incredibly hot there in the summer and arctic in the winter. Was there a week, each, of spring and fall? That was all I could remember.
No, wait. There was kindergarten at William Jennings Bryant Elementary School. The kiddies churned butter in the classroom. We visited a real farm. My brother acted up.
Is that the normal one or the weird one?
They’re both strange.
Is that the quiet one or the loud one?
The quiet one.
I glued together stock cars out of model kits. Chess used a wood etching gun to burn bullet holes in them. I taught myself to read.
One day in class, I had my head on my desk, a book in my lap, reading. The teacher came over. I saw her legs.
What are you doing? she demanded.
Showing off, Chess said.
Lift your head, she demanded.
I lifted my head.
Show me what’s in your lap, she ordered.
I handed her the book.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, she said.
I told you, Chess said. Show off.
Read it, the teacher said, shoving it at me.
I took the book, set it in my lap and started to put my head back down on the desk.
Aloud, she said.
I flipped through the book, found my spot, and read aloud: After the hymn had been sung, the Rev. Mr. Sprague turned himself into a bulletin-board, and read off ‘notices’ of meetings and societies and things till it seemed that the list would stretch out to the crack of doom—a queer custom which is still kept up in America, even in cities, away here in this age of abundant newspapers. Often, the less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it.
Do you even understand what you just read? she asked.
I wanted her to go away so I could finish.
Sure, I said. Our parish priest does the same thing.
Showoff, Chess said.
Quiet, the teacher said. Then she said something deadly to Chess: You ought to be more like your brother.
That’s when Chess shouted a word that no six-year-old should even know, but thanks to our father’s military background, he did. In the 1980’s, the world had become fairly jaded, but some things still shocked. Especially in the grain belt. The air went right out of that classroom.
Chess’ hand went up to his face. The word had ejected out of his mouth and shat itself all over the ears of the impressionable. He clapped his hands over his mouth anyway, as if he could shove the word back in.
The teacher crossed herself.
The word was a Grand Canyon. I stood on the edge looking into it. Wow, I said.
That woke everyone up. A chorus of Ummmmm filled the room.
Chester Dugan! the teacher went.
Ummmm! went the classroom.
Wow, I said again.
Chess slugged me on the arm. Weirdo!
Ow! I went, grabbing my arm.
The teacher grabbed Chess’ upper arm and dragged him out of the classroom, leaving the children all alone.
I went back to reading, but not for long. I felt a poke on the arm. When I looked up, some of the class were standing around me.
Your brother’s in trouble, a red-headed kid noted.
Don’t I know it, I said.
I looked around the room. All the kids were staring at me. This I didn’t need. I pulled the plastic tray in my desk out. It was filled with crayons and other kindergarten implements. I dropped the book in and pushed the tray back into its slot beneath the desktop. I got up. The kids watched me. I pushed past them and out the kindergarten door.
I found it shockingly easy to leave. I had imagined that there would be guards, or that some sort of fence would pop up out of the ground, but the school had nothing of the sort. I walked down an empty corridor, my shoes clackity-clickity-echoing off the walls. I pushed through the big double doors and walked across the weedy front lawn of the school. The flag flapped in a gentle breeze. I didn’t see another human being until I’d left the school grounds, an old man working on his yard, pulling dandelions and placing them in a sack. The back of his gray work shirt was saturated with sweat. His bad comb over was coming unstuck from his pink and spotted scalp.
Whatcha doing? I asked, standing on the sidewalk.
A flying squirrel floated from one tree to another.
Shouldn’t you be in school?
They let us out early.
Oh. Early. The old man wiped his forehead with the back of his hand, stared at the sun for moment as if he might cold-cock it. I’m pulling these dandelions so my wife and I can eat them, he said. He went back to filling the sack.
No kidding, the old man said, pausing again and squinting over at me. You heat up a skillet, fry some bacon, add some sugar to the bacon grease and cook the greens in that.
Takes all kinds, the old man said, and continued on pulling his dandelions.
I walked down to the community pool, which had been emptied. A stoop-shouldered man was inside pushing a broom around. I watched him for a minute. The man saw me. I tried to walk away.
Hey, kid! he shouted up at me.
The sound of broom scratching stopped.
I walked back over to the lip of the pool.
Toss down that pack of smokes and the lighter.
I tossed down the pack of Kools and then the Zippo. The Zippo had a funny symbol on it. The man caught it with one hand. His other hand was a claw.
I stared at the claw for a moment. The one-armed man held it up like a rake. Boo! he went, and laughed.
Lincoln was such a small town. Hardly anything to it. The father, Tech Sergeant Dugan, put on his blue uniform in the morning, nodded at the kids sitting at the kitchen table, kissed his German wife, and drove off to work. He looked like a bus driver, I thought, except for all the ribbons on his chest and stripes on his sleeves.
Hey, why aintcha in school, another lug asked me. Blonde man and redheaded wife, farmers in town for a day of goofing off. I was downtown. I’d walked that far, to my surprise.
They let us off early, I said. We had an atomic bomb drill. Reagan was president, so we were almost at war all the time. The bombing begins in five minutes. Har-dee-har.
No kidding, the guy said. He looked to be my father’s age, whatever that was. Hair cut close to the scalp. He and his wife wearing depression-era clothes, baggy and worn. Scuffed black shoes.
Nothing important, I said.
Nothing important, huh? he said, skeptically. If an A-bomb drops on Lincoln, you think ducking under a desk is going to do any good? Reckon not, he answered himself, smiling at his wife. She smiled back at him. She had some fine horse teeth gleaming in her head.
I have to go in here now, I said, and ducked through a glass door into a hardware shop.
I realized what was familiar about the man and his wife. They were the farming couple I’d met on a field trip. Or maybe they weren’t the farming couple, but they reminded me of them. I’d only met them for a moment.
I realized that Sandra had asked me a question and was waiting for a response.
Um, I said. And finally: What?
I said, ‘Do you like my daughter?’ Sandra said.
Yes, I said. Very much so.
This is another excerpt from Alpha Mike Foxtrot, a novel from Paragraph Line Books.
The air went right out of that classroom.” I will probably steal this line.